You’d think that by now, I would have learned. Starting with my first year of seminary, I’ve now been presenting Christmas messages every year for twenty-four years. And every year, I try to go through the same process: I study the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and then ask myself, “What new thing can I say? How can I really grab people’s attention?”
Ultimately though, I ask myself, “Why should I say anything new? Isn’t the true story of what happened on the first Christmas when Jesus was born sufficiently-attention grabbing to not need my added touches?”
So, I always end up deciding that the story of Jesus’ birth is stunning enough and important enough and life-changing enough on its own. I just need to tell it. I feel like the Project Apollo astronaut who, after going to the moon, said that while that experience was amazing, more remarkable to him than a man walking on the Moon was God walking on the Earth.
What’s even more remarkable to me is the way God walked on the earth. In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, writer Philip Yancey talks about sitting in a concert hall in London for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. During the performance, he glanced up at the royal box “where the queen and her family sat.”
Yancey recalled that a short time before, the queen "had...visited the United States, and reporters delighted in spelling out the logistics involved: Her four thousand pounds of luggage included two outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case someone died, forty pints of plasma, and white kid leather toilet seat covers. She brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and a host of other attendants. A brief visit to a foreign country [by a British royal] can easily cost twenty million dollars.”
Tonight, we celebrate the very event that Handel’s music so grandly commemorates--the arrival of the King of the universe in the Person of the baby Jesus. Jesus' arrival though, stands in sharp contrast to the ways kings and presidents, pop stars and top athletes, and other "important people" arrive, when they show up anywhere in our world.
As Yancey puts it: “God’s visit to earth took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere to lay the newborn king but a feed trough...the event that divided history, and even our calendars [BC and AD], into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses. A mule could have stepped on [Jesus]. [As the song, O Little Town of Bethlehem puts it,] ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.’”
In Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, a star announced the coming of Jesus. But, in contrast to how we usually remember that event, the star that guided wise men to Jesus, probably got them to Him about two years after His birth. By that time, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had moved out of the cave-barn in which the little one had been born and into a house in Bethlehem.
But in Luke, the only special effects in which God engages for the first Christmas happens when He sends angel messengers to a bunch of shepherds.
Of course, in Old Testament times, Moses had been a shepherd. It was the job he took on after he’d become a wanted fugitive back in Egypt and couldn’t find respectable work.
King David had been a shepherd. But that was only because he was the youngest, homeliest, weakest, and least-likely-to-succeed member of his family.
Shepherds were nobodies. They were, one preacher has said, the people who got rejected from the biker gang. First-century Judean society considered them lowlifes!
Yet on the first Christmas, it was only lowlife shepherds who got the benefit of an angel performance announcing Jesus’ coming that must have made Handel’s Messiah sound like two year olds playing kazoos. No wonder they said to each other, “Let’s get over to Bethlehem and check out this news from God!”
Were they disappointed when they saw a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a barn? Not on your life and not just because the angels had told them what to look for!
When earthly royalty or leaders meet ordinary people like you and me, chances are they’ll try to dazzle us with their power. Michael Douglas’ fictional chief executive in the movie, The American President, says that the White House and its Oval Office, for example, were designed to be the “biggest home court advantage” in the history of the world, an intimidating display of the power of the President’s office and of America.
When God came to earth, He could have dazzled us. After all, you can bet that heaven is a lot more impressive place than the White House, or Buckingham Palace, or even the new Anderson Township Kroger’s store. Instead though, God laid His power and His perks aside to become one of us. He became a baby subject to the danger of a donkey’s clumsy hooves crushing Him to death before He could fulfill His mission.
It turns out that God isn’t interested in a home court advantage by which He can cut us down to size. Instead, He cut Himself down to our size so that He could lovingly shape those willing to surrender themselves to Him into the people God made us to be!
While our daughter was working with the college program at Walt Disney World, she said that often, she would think about Friendship Church. Frequently, when she did, she thought of the part of our Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship coming up soon. It’s the part that comes just before we sing Silent Night, when I read--as I will again shortly--the prologue to another of the gospels in the New Testament. The Gospel writer John, using terminology that people steeped in either Greek philosophy or Hebrew Scripture would have known back in the first and second centuries, said that God was the Word--the animating Power Who spoke into the dark primordial chaos and brought life into being. And then, John says, almost literally that “the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us.”
He didn’t do this with luggage or extra plasma or toilet seat covers, valets, or attendants. God became one of us. In doing so, His mission was simple: To be our Savior by spilling His blood on a cross, sacrificing His life to pay the debt you and I owe to God for our sin...and then, rising again so that all who follow Him will live with God forever.
There’s nothing I can add to the incredible story of the first Christmas except to beg you to make it your life style to turn from sin and accept the gift of new living that Jesus offers us...and then to tell you, “God bless you, dear ones whom Jesus loves. Merry Christmas!”
[In preparing this message, I consulted Luke (from the Interpretation Commentary series) by Fred Craddock, among several other sources.]